“I’ve been cheated, been mistreated. When will I be loved?” Opening a film with this Linda Ronstadt plaint isn’t the most original way to set up the concept. But Must Love Dogs isn’t into originality. It’s into familiarity, security, and sameness. It’s into retread.
And so, it sets up what you expect, namely, the premise that internet daters are desperate — to be loved, to be hitched, to be no longer alone — with a series of brief dater “confessions.” (The fact that bar-hopping or singles-dancing or hanging around the water cooler is likely a less productive means to seek a mate is beside the point.) This not-so-new frontier is the film’s gimmick, with a couple of actual dogs included as props.
Preschool teacher and divorcee Sarah (Diane Lane) doesn’t want to think of herself as desperate. But her well-intentioned family — dad Bill (Christopher Plummer), a bunch of brothers, and a couple of sisters, including Carol (the excellent and underappreciated Elizabeth Perkins) — presses the point. Arriving in her kitchen armed with photos and phone numbers of the many available men they know, they crowd the frame and remain generally anonymous in the film. She dutifully tacks these tokens to her fridge, then cringingly removes them as soon as the fam is out the driveway, except for one dashing Ken doll type, just because she has to end the scene on a cutesy note: “What the hell?”
Sarah’s resistance to dating dissolves as soon as Carol uploads her high school graduation photo and assorted data to a personal ad on the net. In this blandly suburban-Caucasian universe, the sisters cut and paste photos and lie about Sarah’s appearance and interests in order to locate the ideal guy. When that guy turns out to be her dad — in the promotional trailer’s most prominent scene — Sarah’s daunted, less because of the yucky idea hat her “best match” is Bill, but because this tale will be “immortalized in family history,” to be retold at holiday gatherings forever more. This family thing is looking rather grim now, as if it’s about to swallow the rest of the movie whole.
As if to step back from these pressures, Sarah does meet a couple of men, Bob (Dermot Mulroney), the newly separated, extra cute father of a student, and Jake (the way-too-smart-for-formula-comedies John Cusack), loving crafter of wooden skulls (boats), dedicated to old-school designs and materials despite lack of sales. Lonely since his divorce, Jake spends most of his time now with his lawyer (“Lisa taught me about sadness,” he says, I’m gonna owe her for the rest of my life”). Together they spend hours watching Doctor Zhivago (Jake’s favorite movie because it’s about “a love so real it hurts even after you’re dead”) or discussing Jake’s dates.
Sarah, per generic prescription, has her own set of confidants, including her sisters, her father (“There’s someone special out there for you, someone worthy”), the butcher (whom she snaps at when he tries to sell her more than a single chicken breast), one of her dad’s new girlfriends, the dazzling Dolly (Stockard Channing). She exults in the internet’s possibilities (“It’s part fantasy, part community,” she gushes, “And it lets you pay your bills naked”). Though her enthusiasm for internet chatting leads to a briefly awkward moment (a 15-year-old paramour arrives on her doorstep to pledge his troth), Dolly remains the film’s charming periphery, wryly commenting on its increasingly rote center.
Sarah’s cursory attraction to Bob doesn’t produce much tension. His plain unsuitability is a function of formula, so you won’t be disappointed by Sarah’s eventual decision (the comedic staging of that decision, literally dunking her in a river, is dreadful). At the same time, it makes her eventual realization seem late and silly. Bob presents himself as an ideal guy, writing a biography of Robert E. Lee, playing David Cassidy songs on the piano (“Come on, get happy!”), wearing professory glasses, and tousling his adorable son’s hair on cue. Yet he also puts on an irritating self-satisfaction, so clearly opposite of Sarah’s perpetual distractedness and disquiet that their mismatch is never in question.
By comparison, Jake’s self-doubting sincerity is mostly appealing, only slightly appalling. He comes on so intensely during a dinner with Sarah that even he knows to pause (“I’m scaring you right now, aren’t I?”), before plunging ahead, urging her to be absolutely honest about what she wants, so they can get that part “out of the way.” At moments like these, you’re missing Cusack’s own speedy-fresh Grosse Point Blank, because these regular pictures only limit his terrifically odd physical and verbal rhythms. Jake’s not on screen enough, and why does he spend even a minute with the nubile, cheap-joke-in-a miniskirt Sherry (Jordana Spiro)? (Her egregiously dopey misunderstanding of Doctor Zhivago is only icing on an obvious cake.)
Jake is so patently Sarah’s right choice (“You are kind of ‘voluptuous,'” he notes, observing a dubious description in her internet ad, “in a minimalist kind of way”), that you wish he’d just abscond with the film altogether. (Do you really need to see Sarah interact with the butcher three times?) All her wheels-spinning and second-guessing only make Sarah look less “worthy.”